For people of the Sioux nation -- the broad term sometimes used for the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations -- religion is a way of life. Although U.S. legislation outlawed many of the religious practices and ceremonies of the Sioux nation in the late 1800s, tribal members still believe everything exists as one with the Great Spirit. In order to connect with this spirituality, they continue to engage in various religious ceremonial practices, even those abolished decades ago.
The Sioux's spiritual worldview consists of aminism, polytheism and shamanism. For them, nature is sacred. Everything exists within Wakan Tanka, "The Great Spirit," that holds power over everything that has and still exists. Wakan Tanka is life itself and manifests in the sun, moon, stars, and earth, and everthing lives in the shelter of the "world tree." Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, once described this tree as "one mightly flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father."
The Holy Ones
Wakanpi are invisible beings who exercise power and control through the Great Spirit and to understand and please them -- which in turn pleases Wakan Tanka -- they must seek out holy men and women, spiritual leaders who maintain direct contact with the Wakanpi through dreams and visions. The great warrior, Sitting Bull, was one of these holy men. Today, tribes still depend on holy men and women for medical and spiritual guidance.
Traditionally, Sioux tribes engage in various ceremonies to maintain a connection to the Great Spirit. They take part in sweat lodges, vision quests and the sacred pipe ceremony. Before important rituals, tribal members cleanse their bodies and spirits in the sweat lodge with the four basic elements of the earth. Vision quests begin at puberty. Males, and sometimes females, seek out solitary places where they fast for days in order to open their minds to the Great Spirit. Finally, the Sioux smoke the sacred pipe, the smoke of which carries their prayers and good thoughts to the celestial beings for every important occasion in life, especially important ceremonies.
The Controversial Sun and Ghost Dance
The Sun Dance and Ghost Dance -- the most important and controversial ceremonies of the Sioux -- once incited fear and the enactment of the Code of Religious Offenses in late 1800s that banned the practice of these rituals. The most religious of ceremonies, The Sun Dance, was a self-sacrifice ritual that included dancing, drums, praying and self-inflicted lacerations. These lacerations connected the individual to the world tree during prayer; when the piercing stripped the flesh, the warrior offered it as a sacrifice for family and community improvement. The purpose of the Ghost Dance -- a ritual that led to the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek -- was originally to bring peace with the white settlers, but the Sioux altered the ceremony to create a cleansing ritual: one that would rid the evil whites from Sioux land. Although once abolished, the Sioux still practice the Sun Dance, while the Ghost Dance is also practiced privately today. One tribal member, White Deer of Autumn, said the tribes perform the dance for the same reasons. She said, "We are losing a lot of our loved ones to cancer and alcohol, and the earth is in dire need of healing."
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